“Selling horses keeps the show on the road but I’d love to hold on to a good one to try and win some of the bigger races. When I took my first horse to a point-to-point, all I wanted was for him to get around. Then I thought I’d love to have one placed and then I wanted to win; the goalposts kept moving.”
– Stuart Crawford, Irish Racing Yearbook 2014
JESSICA Harrington may be the highest-profile trainer who made the transition from eventing to racing but there are plenty more. While Harrington was selected for two Olympic Games but missed out due to a boycott and a late injury to her horse, Louise Lyons did enter the ring in 2008 and has made an impact with her select string since taking out a licence.
Classic-winning conditioner Ken Condon also represented Ireland and last Sunday, another who wore the green jacket added to his burgeoning reputation when saddling the dramatic victor by a nose of the Grade 2 Coolmore NH Sires Santiago Irish EBF Mares’ INH Flat Race at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.
We knew before then that Stuart Crawford was a dab hand at identifying young stock at a budget and then producing them to win on the track. Initially, the business model was to sell them after increasing their value and so fund the next phase of the development. Now, with Simon Munir and Isaac Souede opting to leave many of the horses he had been pre-training for them or that they bought from him, in his care, Lily Du Berlais amongst them, there is increased quality at Newlands Farm and ambition has grown with that, just as he suggested it would in the Irish Racing Yearbook 2014 interview he did with Margie McLoone, of this parish.
Crawford believes his eventing background is beneficial in educating young racehorses. And remember, quite apart from the likes of Fine Rightly, Legacy Gold, Killyglen, O’Toole and Lily Du Berlais that he has successfully trained himself, he and his brothers Ross, Steven and Ben also sourced and developed the likes of Irish Grand National winner General Principle and Cheltenham Festival hero Ballynagour.
“You are spending a bit more time trying to teach a horse to accept the rider initially and to encourage the horse to carry himself. And try and find his own balance,” explains the Larne-based operator, who finished eighth in the world championships for six-year-olds with Amacuzzi in France in 2009, by which stage, he already had a licence to train racehorses. “If you can do that, I think it’s a help. To try and maximise a horse using his ability and also to help try and keep him sound.
“I’ve been lucky enough over the years, I’ve got a lot of help with a lot of top-class trainers around the world. Probably at the time, you quite often wouldn’t appreciate what they are telling you or are not fit to take it all on board. Now I think back on something a trainer told me 20 years ago or more (and) the penny is only dropping. I’m obviously a bit of a slow learner,” he concludes, laughing.
The results suggest otherwise. Steven was the first to dive headlong into the racing world, becoming an apprentice jockey while his siblings stuck to eventing but now, Crawford Bros Racing is a force to be reckoned with, as evidenced most recently by Lily Du Berlais.
“I wasn’t actually sure she was up. Then in the heat of the moment, you think she’s definitely gone and won it. But then the more I watched the replays I thought, ‘It’s a lot closer than I first thought.’ But she was at the right end of the result.
“I was very optimistic about our two runners for the weekend (Carnfunnock finishing third in the Grade 2 Goffs Future Stars Bumper behind Facile Vega and Sandor Clegane). Part of the reason why they went off at big odds (Lily Du Berlais at 40/1, Carnfunnock at 28/1) is they are winning in places like Ayr and Perth and not getting the credit for that. Carnfunnock had been third in the Land Rover before winning at Ayr. They were both convincing winners.”
Lily Du Berlais’ plans have changed a few times due to Covid-19 and the impact on the point-to-point circuit, and then a slight setback. She was back in training quite a while by the time she went to Perth though, the dry spring having kept her on ice longer than was ideal. A spell on grass was needed afterwards but it meant the daughter of Shirocco wasn’t ready for Christmas, making last Sunday the next obvious target.
“She’s come out of it well, she’d be a hardy type. She had plenty done before she went there; there maybe a wee bit of improvement in her now but she was ready.”
Aintree and Punchestown are the next potential targets but it is what she might do over fences that excites Crawford.
“She has a heap of schooling done, she would have been designated to start off in a point-to-point just for the way it’s been for the last 18 months it didn’t fall into place for her to go. That’s why she started off in the bumpers so I’d be itching to get going with her over hurdles next season.”
From a broader perspective, it was important to deliver a big pot for the owners given the evolving nature of their partnership.
“They enjoy winners at all levels but there’s no getting away from it, everyone is striving to get a winner at the highest level - owners, trainers, jockeys.
“We’ve sold them horses in the past and always had a bit of a connection with Anthony Bromley over the years. They were wanting to go a slightly different direction and start off with a few stores. Thankfully they gave me the opportunity to get them started off for them and a few horses I have with me there at this stage, hopefully they’ll stay a wee bit longer.”
Lily Du Berlais is just the latest example of the brothers’ astuteness and talent. She was bought at the Tattersalls Derby Sale for €25,000 and was acquired by Bromley for Munir and Souede after her Perth romp.
Carnfunnock cost €20,000 at the Goffs Land Rover Sale and again, was in the family colours when finishing third in that sale’s bumper at Punchestown, despite being very green and Crawford relates, being nervous in and around other horses. He has taken significant strides since then, again benefiting from patient handling and application of fastidious foundation work. Like Lily Du Berlais, he will eschew Cheltenham, with another trip Merseyside likely. Though not a big horse, he jumps well according to Crawford and that is the obvious focus for him at the sales.
“A lot of the stores I’m buying are maybe – well, what’s a typical chasing type? They come in all shapes and sizes. But generally speaking, Derby Sale horses are bigger, so they probably do take a bit more time. So there’s a few of those to look forward to.
“(Going to the sales), you are going to be governed a bit by your price. That’s the starting point. And if you are getting governed by price you have to make allowances either in the model or in the pedigree. You’d be trying to find as nice a model as you could, certainly an athletic-type horse. And looking at the pedigree second. If you are matching up everything, more than likely you’ll get beat in the sales ring and it’s as simple as that.”
Perhaps the most talented individual at the dairy farm-turned-training establishment is O’Toole, who runs in the competitive looking Connolly’s Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Novice Hurdle at Naas today, with Henry de Bromhead’s smart Leopardstown maiden hurdle winner, Journey With Me likely to go off favourite, and Pinkerton, Hi Ho Phoenix and Choice Of Words no backmarkers.
O'Toole looks a top prospect for the Crawfords \ Healy Racing
O’Toole was a bumper winner at Fairyhouse this time last year before splitting Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit in the Punchestown Champion Bumper. He is one from one over hurdles, after scoring comfortably at Down Royal on St Stephen’s Day. This is a considerable step up in class but one he is entitled to make. But again, Cheltenham will be bypassed.
“He’s grown a good bit from what he was last spring, and I’d say just from that point of view alone, I could have been forcing him too much by going to Cheltenham this spring… let the horse come along at his own pace. The Naas race is a good race… Henry de Bromhead’s horse is going to go off a very short price for one of the novice hurdles at Cheltenham. We always had this in mind so I’m happy he’s going to be going and in good form.
“He’s probably naturally not a sharp bumper horse and I’d say that’s why he didn’t come closer to winning in Punchestown last spring, he was against two six-year-olds in Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard that were just a bit more race-hardened and just knew a wee bit more about life probably than what he did at the time. At Down Royal, when he won the maiden hurdle, he wasn’t beating horses that had got to a similar level over bumpers. But this is the sort of horse he is, he’ll probably never do any more than he needs to. He just stays simple and easy-going and does what you ask him.”
Saint D’Oroux, Ballycoose, The Flier Begley and Cool Rain are just some of the others he believes could make into decent prospects. The former won at Kelso nine days ago on his first for Crawford, having previously been trained at Cullentra House by Gordon Elliott and Sneezy Foster.
These cross-channel forays are nothing new to the Antrim contingent but this season’s plundering has proven fantastically fruitful, yielding 14 wins from 82 runs, compared to five from 86 in Ireland.
“We are only three to four miles from the ferry, which is a big thing. That opens up those tracks in the north (of Britain); within three and a half hours you have a lot of good tracks, very accessible to you. As well, the kind of horses to go with generally speaking are for your bumpers and maiden hurdles and from time to time you can be facing a ballot issue in Ireland, when you are preparing a horse to run and to sell it you are probably trying to prepare it for a day. If you are gone and you are getting balloted out four or five times… horses don’t stay in good form forever.
“Another thing, some owners enjoy going and making a day of it at the races across the water. Plus another big thing is I’ve been very lucky over the years. I’ve had some of the top jockeys there, whether it be AP McCoy or Dicky Johnson or Brian Hughes. That’s obviously a big bearing on it.”
He lauds the dedication of fellow Ulsterman Hughes – from Armagh – who careered through the 150-winner mark during the week, but he is no less dedicated himself, driving the lorry to the Irish races despite all his other responsibilities. It is a collective effort though in Crawford Bros Racing.
“We don’t always see eye to eye, no doubt about that, but we each get our own areas and like, it’s very satisfying to be doing this with the family. Formerly, Steven would have been riding the bulk of the horses in the bumpers. Ben is obviously a bit bigger and always struggled a wee bit with his weight.
“Getting any winner is good, to see your brother riding it adds to the occasion. Ross would do a lot of the breaking-in and sorting the horses. Ben is heavily involved in the riding and schooling end of things. Steven would be at home in the yard pretty much full time.”
Identifying future stock is “a team effort.” The ingredients are there for a thriving establishment, making ground and paying its way, despite the oft-negative narrative surrounding the dominance of Willie Mullins and one or two others, a narrative he has no time for.
“I enjoy producing horses first and foremost. I get satisfaction out of seeing what I think are good horses living up to its potential. I always say, the more you do, the keener you are to try and take the horse on yourself but it’s only when you have the firepower behind you both in terms of the horse and the owner that allows you to progress.
“The other thing about that as well is most people from the time, they will have an owner that’s not a seller and maybe come across one good horse but you need a constant supply of them if you want to sustain it because horses go wrong and it can be a short window of opportunity for a horse.
The Crawfords have built up a fruitful relationship with big owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede \ Healy Racing
“I think everyone is going to have their optimal number of horses that you can work with. If you are starting off buying maybe not the top store in the store sales, you are going to have to give it a wee bit more attention than what it would get say a yard with a few hundred horses.
“Everyone is going to find the balance, it’s the number that’s comfortable for them. There’s a number that’s comfortable for me to work with. And rather than increasing numbers, you are trying to increase quality all the time. But it’s a wee bit chicken and egg situation, you need to go through the numbers to find the quality.”
That number is around 60 at Newlands Farm and the quality levels are definitely deeper than ever before. But that is the way it has been going ever since Crawford trained his first winner, choosing the historic La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival to do so as Ken Whelan, now agent to a number of jockeys, won ride of the month as well for his efforts on Oh Jackie.
Now all that’s left is to win a Grade 1, as Brian Lusk used to do from his northern base. It seems only a matter of time.